By DINESH RAMDE
DARLINGTON, Wis. (AP) — Sharon Wand could barely finish a sentence without breaking down in sobs. The grieving Wisconsin mother was recalling how her three young sons considered their uncle a role model, someone who taught them how to count and ride a bicycle. Then she tearfully asked that uncle, her teenage brother-in-law, how he could kill those boys for $300.
Wand spoke Thursday at the sentencing hearing of Jeremy L. Wand, 19, who pleaded guilty to helping his older brother set the house fire that killed Jeremy Wand’s three nephews and his brother’s unborn daughter. The teen’s 2-year-old niece survived.
“You were not just an uncle, a brother-in-law — you were like a son to me,” Sharon Wand said with a cracking voice. “Now I do not know how to feel about you. I still love you — but I hate you for what you did.”
As she spoke, Jeremy Wand looked at his hands, handcuffed in his lap. He appeared stoic, sometimes whispering with his attorney but rarely looking over at Sharon Wand.
He declined to speak before the judge handed down his sentence — life in prison. The soonest he could be eligible for parole is in 35 years.
Wand pleaded guilty in June to six charges, including three counts of being a party to first-degree intentional homicide.
Prosecutors said Wand’s 33-year-old brother, Armin Wand III, schemed to set the fire last year to kill Sharon Wand and their four children, and then collect on insurance policies. They said Jeremy Wand agreed to participate for a $300 cut of the insurance money.
Assistant attorney general Roy Korte, who prosecuted the case, acknowledged that Armin Wand was the instigator. But he noted that Jeremy Wand could have refused to start the fire at the Argyle home, or he could have saved the screaming children.
Korte read excerpts from transcripts of the interviews police conducted with Armin and Jeremy Wand, neither of whom was hurt in the fire. He read statements in which Jeremy Wand acknowledged using paper and a cigarette lighter to ignite a fire near the TV plug so the blaze would look electrical in nature. He also read comments in which Armin Wand acknowledged that he set a fire — and also tried to shove his rescued 2-year-old daughter back inside the burning house — because he wanted “a fresh start.”
As Korte read, Sharon Wand leaned into a friend’s shoulder, making no effort to wipe away her tears.
Armin Wand is serving a life term without parole.
Defense attorney Frank Medina acknowledged that his client’s crime was among the most heinous offenses in the state’s history. But he suggested the teen was being controlled by his older brother, and asked that Jeremy be made eligible for parole in 20 to 25 years.
Judge Thomas Vale granted Jeremy eligibility for parole, saying his decision was influenced by Sharon Wand’s willingness to see the young man given a chance if he could take responsibility for his actions.
Vale handed down the sentence a few hours after rejecting Jeremy Wand’s request to withdraw his guilty pleas. Wand had said he felt pressured to plead guilty and should have been allowed a trial after his sister-in-law allegedly changed her story about what happened the night of the fire.
Vale rejected both arguments, saying Sharon Wand’s testimony was minor in comparison to the confessions Jeremy and Armin Wand allegedly gave to police. Vale also said Wand specifically denied at his plea hearing that his plea was coerced.
The Wand children killed in the fire were 7-year-old Allan, 5-year-old Jeffery and 3-year-old Joseph. Sharon Wand, who awoke to discover she was on fire, ran outside to put out the flames on herself before rushing back inside to retrieve 2-year-old Jessica. Jessica was not seriously hurt, but Sharon Wand was burned over more than half of her body.
Sharon Wand reminisced about how much her boys loved their uncle. She asked Jeremy whether he remembers how they drew pictures for him and fell asleep in his arms — yet he still condemned them to an agonizing death.
“You have ruined so many lives, including yours,” she told him. “I don’t understand, Jeremy — why would you do something this terrible for $300?”